Letters to the Netherlands: May we be childlike and humble …

JanLetterFourNot long ago, I learned a saying: “One Dutchman, a theologian. Two Dutchmen, a church. Three Dutchmen, a schism.” There is truth in this.

Our great-great grandfather, Jan Willem, migrated to America from the Netherlands with his wife and children in 1889. He was from Rijssen, in the province of Overijssel in the eastern Netherlands. He came from a conservative Reformed community of faith in the Netherlands and settled in a similar community in Iowa, which was common among Dutch immigrants of the era. Many were part of communities that were more orthodox than the official Dutch Reformed Church of the time in the Netherlands. It is clear Jan knew his Bible, a deep familiarity passed on to his grandson, our grandfather. Jan remained interested in church matters, both in the Netherlands and in his new home in America, though he seems to have struggled at times with where he belonged in his new home and discussed this in his letters to the Netherlands. I can’t help but note how little things have changed in some ways …

Writing from Iowa to a friend in the Netherlands, A. Koedijk, about the Rijssen congregation, he says (as translated): “I have noted all that you wrote about church matters. I do not believe that the unity of our congregation is a result of a conviction as to the truth, but rather because of circumstances and grievances — that is not good. Rather let the congregation sing Ps 62: 4 & 5. May the Lord grant grace to do that — that is my hearty wish — and may He graciously forgive the sins we have committed together… The situation in America in regard to ecclesiastical affairs is sad — one proclaims “here is the Christ” and another “there is the Christ” — those days have arrived. May the Lord open the eyes of His children in order that they may not become confused by the frivolous spirits calling the believers … Things are regarded much less seriously than formerly.”

Jan expressed apprehension that if he joined a congregation in America they might ask him to “catechize and teach Sunday school,” and at the time he wrote to his friend, he apparently did not feel he could meet the standard of his Rijssen “catechizers,” saying, “they tell me they will risk it with me, but I have not been able to do that work to equal Voordman and Sefieget — you know that very well, brother Koedijk — nor equal to you … May we be very childlike and humble, clothed with modesty, brought to His feet to pray for mercy — and may we be privileged to enjoy that blessed peace.”

[Note: A commentary with the letter says that “Sefieget” sometimes presented facts incorrectly to test his students’ knowledge. It also points out that the question of congregational unity to which Jan referred involved whether the small Rijssen church would join with several independent congregations from Delft, Enkhuizen, the Hague, Woorden, Kampen, and other places. I do not know the answer.]

These letters are part of a larger collection of Dutch immigrant letters in the archives of the Christian Reformed Church at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am occasionally posting very brief excerpts in no particular order.

See other posts in this series: Letters to the Netherlands

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4 Responses to Letters to the Netherlands: May we be childlike and humble …

  1. Hah, I’ve never heard that saying before. But my great-grandmother left the Reformed church when she saw a quilt she donated hanging on a woman’s laundry line. Sigh. What a wonderful document. I’ll keep watching for more excerpts.

    • ljhlaura says:

      It is a saying that does make me smile a little but is also poignant. The theological differences they wrestled with are in some ways 19th-century versions of the ones people still wrestle with today. It delights me that the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America, the dominant denominations of Dutch immigrants in America, are working together again after splitting in the 19th century.

  2. Marianne K says:

    It’s clear to me where you got your talent for writing from. You and Jan have/had a gift with words.

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